A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

Rabbi’s Corner

I’m thrilled to step offstage and make room for my friend, mentor and pastor, Brian Morgan – around these parts he goes by “the rabbi” and for good reason. His deep and abiding passion is the Psalms and the ways in which they teach us how to speak with an authentic voice – to God first and then in the community of God’s people. You are slowly going to get to know Brian here, in The Rabbi’s Corner, and you are in for one of the richest blessings of your life. I asked Brian to start by telling his story of how the Psalms, and writing sacred poetry in response, came to be his passion. You can reach him here in the comments on this blog, or directly at brian@pbcc.org. Enjoy!

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Brian and Emily Morgan

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Besieged by poetry

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Marc Chagall, Over The Town

Like most of my discoveries in life, the gift of poetry in a word-soaked world landed upon me much later than I would have preferred. I studied economics at Stanford University with the intention of going into business but, through the ministry of Peninsula Bible Church, I changed course and became a pastor. Shortly after Emily and I were married in 1972, we lost our firstborn son (David Jonathan – nine days after birth) due to a rare enzyme deficiency. The following year our daughter Jessica endured the same fate. Nothing prepared me for how to process my grief until years later poetry found me.

I was that age, thirty-seven, when poetry arrived. On the outskirts of hell a poet had shaped the soul of his nation to sing. The place was România and the year 1988, a little more than a year before the brutal, 20-year regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would come to an end with his execution on December 25, 1989. The poet was Traian Dorz, born exactly seventy years earlier on December 25, 1914, a man of profound and abiding faith who watched in horror as his beloved country was ravaged, raped and left to grope alone in the darkness, her dignity stolen, her faith mercilessly stomped out. Working in this wasteland, God gave Dorz a voice powerful enough to pierce the oppressive darkness of Communist Romania and energize his silent, suffering countrymen. So powerful were his poems that the Securitate brutally confiscated every page of them, piled them in an oxcart and burned them before his eyes.

Over the next seventeen years of imprisonment, house arrest and brutal torture Dorz worked with relentless energy. Equipped with only his memory, a glass shard for a pallet, lime and spittle as his paint, and a matchstick for a brush, he resurrected his poems from the ash heap––some 4500 poems.

Ceausescu, the dictator, and Traian Dorz both died in 1989. Ceausescu has no lasting legacy from his fleeting, vulgar shadow, but today, thousands of Romanians sing Dorz’s immortal songs as the sacred expression of their faith. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that I was transported to another place and time where one touches the face of the Holy.

And then I met the man. It was a warm summer evening in Cluj. I just had returned from a secret meeting, full of song and Spirit and entered my host’s home. As I opened the door to my room, I saw him standing there––Traian Dorz, seventy-three years of age. He was a man of small stature, but he possessed a powerful presence––a peasant yet a king. Here was a man who endured more suffering and swallowed more evil than I could comprehend. Seeing him, I felt conflicting emotions warring within me. Repelled by my own sense of unworthiness, I felt like dust on the scale, and at the same time, drawn by a holy love. I showed him a photo I had taken of the Roman pavement stone in Israel where Pilate presented the scourged Jesus to the crowds, saying, “Behold the man” (in Latin ecce homo). He took it and held it with unspeakable tenderness and wept. Then he took me into his arms, looked deep into my eyes and said, You teach about the cross….we live under the cross.” Then in an act of extreme tenderness, he gently pressed his cheek to mine and prayed for me. I needed no translation. Like the apostle Paul, he was praying that I might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:17-19), a love that he had come to know in suffering living under the cross. The words rolled off his tongue in dream-like cadences. The soft timbre and pulsating rhythms of his voice seized me and tore my heart like water.

That one touch was all I would ever experience from the poet. But it was all I needed. “Suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open…my heart broke loose with the wind.”[1]

As the Apostle James writes, “the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working” (Jas 5:16). Traian Dorz’s prayer for me was beginning to transform my life and would continue to so for years to come. The following year, after escaping the clutches of the Securitate in Cluj, Ceausescu’s cronies followed us into the forest where he conducted a second camp in Costeşti. It was here that I experienced the “explosive” power of the poem.

Reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, John Felstiner, Stanford University professor of English and poetry, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several Securitate agents were searching for us in the forest. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, three brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from being arrested. I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes (1 Sam 18:1-5). At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word. Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.

When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)

On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will  lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)

As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” Suddenly I realized that all four worlds were converging before my eyes. The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story and Dorz’s poetry, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România.

Coming home, I came to treasure the poem and to recognize its unique power to unlock grief in the soul in a way that doesn’t deny or obliterate it, but rather transcends it by naming and embracing our grief in the presence of God and his people. Like David, I learned to write my own laments, articulating the grief over the death of my first two children, and shared them with the congregation. Experiencing the power of the poem changed my orientation as a pastor. I have always been passionate about teaching the Hebrew Scriptures in all their beauty. But it never occurred to me that teaching was only first step in making disciples.

If God’s chosen way of communicating to people was “story” and “poem,” then my job is to equip people to become storytellers and poets and to offer their psalms of lament and praise publicly as acts of worship. Our experiences, rather than being a litany of morbid dirges, became unforgettable moments uniting us in sacred love. Fragmented people who had been living broken lives, disassociated from their pain and trying desperately to live victorious Christian lives began instead to deal with grief head on, to heal, to participate honestly in the larger community of faith, and walk with God in deeper intimacy. It is a gift that, as the poet prayed, has enlarged my heart to begin to comprehend the length, breadth, and height of the love of Christ.

Time Beneath His Shadow

Ten years,
it seems like yesterday,
when at night I was cast into his arms,
cheek to cheek,
to hear the soft timbre of his voice,
those pulsating rhythms,
that seized me and tore my heart like water.

Ten years is but a day
beneath the shadow of the poet
to stare deep into the purest eyes
of humble men, frail dust,
sacred sons,
with not a word to give or raise,
but to silent know,
now my soul,
strangely knit to theirs like one.

Ten years, a swift wind,
like the blink of an eye
to frame a window
around those four voiced angels
of Vecernie’s beckoning song,
to hold their vibrating notes forever,
and touch their faces long.

Ten years, not one day
did I hasten to stay, but flew away
every night like a bird
to those secret Carpathian heights,
your spine and ridge to lift me,
your valleys to swallow me
in the dew soaked verdant green,
I feel you now in my every breath,
I see you in the splendor of the moon,
and in the nighttime shadows and airy stillness
that bequeaths that rare quiet to my soul.

Ten years I solely seek you
as each day and night abide,
ten years searching for my father’s well again,
like a lost forsaken lover seeks his holy bride.

Ten years, one touch, cheek to cheek,
and now I live forever in that timeless space
beneath the shadow of the poet.


[1] Ilan Staven ed., The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, 660.

6 thoughts on “Rabbi’s Corner

  1. Naturally, I was deeply touched to read the story – actually, to review the story again.
    Your loving sister,
    Andrea Louise

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  2. Pingback: What Can We Do To #bringbackourgirls? | A Travelogue of the Interior

  3. “While Brian nor some of the others of us are not ethnically Jewish, we understand ourselves as covenant people and treat the Hebrew Scriptures as fundamental, essential, relevant and instructive.”

    Karen,
    It’s encouraging to see believers taking the Tanakh seriously, however those Hebrew Scriptures that you rightly say are “foundational, essential, and instructive” (oh, I wish more Christians understood this!) testify to the fact that the Jewish people are His covenant people. The reality is that apart from the covenant with Noah, He didn’t covenant with non-Jews. The “Old Covenant” which was never recinded, was with physical Israel, as is the New Covenant (Ez 36 and Jer 31) that has been inaugurated via the Messiah Jesus. (But reading those chapters quickly reveals that not only is the New Covenant made with Israel and Judah, but also that we are definitely not there yet, i.e., everyone does not know God!)

    Christians have come up with ways to circumvent the role and distinction of the Jews by reading the scripture allegorically and outright declaring that God is finished with Israel, God hates Israel, and that Christians are the “new Israel” etc. and accepting these pernicious teachings have not only brought us Christians utter confusion about our role and identity, but these doctrines have brought down horrific suffering onto the Jewish people, and created a callous around the Christian heart allowing us to ignore their suffering. The sad reality is that it is at the hands of professing Christians and “The Church” that Jews have suffered the most these past 1800 years. As a Christian this grieves terribly.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative either, and my comment is in no way claiming that this man isn’t good and Godly and well intentioned. However, I’ve seen the issue of Christian triumphalism up close and very personal, and our routine and careless way of displacing the Jewish people, as if they don’t matter, or appropriating their religious titles is very callous, although I also know that it is difficult to understand this from a Christian paradigm.

    This weekend was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and I sat through a number of stories and prayers with people who suffered terribly at the hands of monsters who felt the need to rid the world of them. The sad fact is that the Holocaust would not have been possible without the doctrines created and taught for 1800 years by the men we revere as Church Fathers and Reformers. Yet, as I sat and listened, I wondered how many Churches were even mentioning the Shoah at their services on Sunday, much less holding a special service to remember the suffering of the Covenant people and our role in that suffering. Given my history in the Church, I’d say there were few, if any.

    I’m not laying the blame of the Holocaust or Christian anti-Semitism on you or on the gentleman (please don’t misunderstand). Instead, I’m trying to call your attention to what I believe is inappropriate use of a religious title and, however unintentional, a callous disregard for the distinction God created between us and the Jewish people. In other words, as a Christian with a foot in both worlds, I’m attempting to sensitize my people.

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    • I really appreciate your perspective, Sojourning, and your insistence that we tread carefully. Thank you for taking time to write it out here for myself and others to read and ponder.

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  4. I appreciate your comment, Sojourning, and receive as weighty. I don’t intend to be argumentative here, and am doing my best to convey an open tone, but simply want to be on the record that from my point of view there is no disrespecting going on as to what “rabbi” not only means literally but connotes as a title carrying historically and socially constructed meaning. While Brian nor some of the others of us are not ethnically Jewish, we understand ourselves as covenant people and treat the Hebrew Scriptures as fundamental, essential, relevant and instructive. Those of us who by faith have been grafted in to the eternal promises of God through the faithfulness of Abraham, Hannah, David, Mary and many named and unnamed others, not to mention Jesus, take Brian’s role as rabbi with absolute seriousness. He has a joyful personality and disposition, born through great suffering and one that manifests mostly in tears, and so if you see a lightness in the way people interact with him, that is most likely why.

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  5. This is unfortunate. A “rabbi” is a real title for a real Jewish person serving the Jewish people by teaching them about their covenant obligation to God via His holy scriptures. It’s rather disrespectful to disregard that.

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